Sunday, March 8, 2020

Historic Preservation Energy Efficiency Myths

historic preservation illustration

Myths pervade most aspects of life and they can be very persistent. Whether it’s “we only use 10% of our brain” or “George Washington had wooden teeth” these myths can be relatively harmless  – or they can really get in the way of true understanding and action.

Historic preservation has its own set of myths. Some originate from a grain of truth, many are outright wrong, and still others require a more nuanced understanding.

I run across these myths all the time in our work where we often push back with education, persuasion, and our own experiences. In this series of short essays, we take on the four most persistent and sometimes damaging myths about historic preservation in the Adirondacks. (This is the third of a four part series. You can find the second part here.)

MYTH #3: Historic buildings are hopelessly energy inefficient and cannot meet current demands for sustainability.

No myth in historic preservation is further from the truth. Yes – most newly constructed buildings use less energy compared to existing and historic buildings BUT existing buildings can be made to be competitively energy efficient and meet the current New York State Energy Code. This is typically done by first understanding the energy characteristics of your building through an energy audit and then systematically making conservation improvements that might include adding insulation and storm windows, stopping air infiltration, and replacing conventional heating and cooling systems with heat pumps.

But there’s something else we should consider in looking at the new versus existing question. All the energy to make the materials that went into an existing building has already been spent, sometimes hundreds of years ago. This we call embodied energy. In contrast, new buildings require a great deal of new energy to produce the concrete, bricks, gypsum, framing, roofing, and mechanical systems needed. These energy costs include the energy required to get the raw materials out of the ground or off the land, to transport the raw materials to the place of processing, to process the raw materials into a manufactured product, to transport the finished product to retailers and then to the consumer, and then to install the finished components into the building. All of these energy costs can be calculated and, for instance, an average-sized new house “consumes” about 181,000 kilowatts in energy before the house is ever occupied.

Assuming the new house is more energy efficient than an existing house, this means it will take an average of 40 years for an energy efficient new house to recover the energy and carbon expended in the construction of that house (Empty Homes Agency, 2008). We all want to live in more energy efficient buildings but, in making good decisions, it helps to understand both the energy consumed in operating a building AND the energy consumed in making a building. Add to this the fact that existing buildings CAN often be rehabilitated and improved to be as energy efficient as new construction and this puts the reuse of existing buildings in a new, much more favorable light.

For more information on energy efficiency and historic buildings, click here. Part one of this series can be found online here.

Christine Bush and Nolan Cool contributed to this essay.

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Steven Engelhart is the Executive Director of Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH), the regional historic preservation organization of the Adirondack Park. AARCH's mission is to promote better public understanding, appreciation and stewardship of the region's built environment.

Among AARCH's many activities are: sponsoring a series of tours of historic places; offering workshops; giving slide presentations; publishing a newsletter; managing Camp Santanoni, advocating on behalf of threatened historic sites; and providing technical assistance to individuals, organizations and local governments.

Steven is a native of the region and has a BA from SUNY Plattsburgh and a MS in historic preservation from the University of Vermont. He is the author of Crossing the River: Historic Bridges of the AuSable River, a small book about bridges and local history of the AuSable Valley. He resides in Wadhams and loves to hike, canoe, read, play the banjo, explore the region, and spend time with family and friends.

2 Responses

  1. Big Burly says:

    An important reminder Steven, not everything old is expendable, not everything new is better. Important as I get older too. Thank you for this series.

  2. DAVID H CHIANG says:

    You say a new house requires 181000 kilowatts in energy. Kilowatts is not a measure of energy, it is a measure of use of energy. Like mph. If you are traveling at 100 mph, how far did you go? Unknown. We need to multiply rate times time. 100mph x 1 hour = 100 miles. 181,000 kilowatts x 1 hour = 180,000 kilowatt hours. Kwh are a measure of energy we use when the electric company sends you a bill. 1 kwh = 1000 watts x 1 hour. 1000 joules per second x 3600 seconds. 1 kwh= 3600000 joules. Joules are a measure of energy.

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